39 Storytelling Tips / Techniques That Will Land You Your Dream Agent

storytellinig tips and techniques

Whether you’re writing a novel, screenplay, or the story to a video game, there are 39 storytelling tips and techniques that will guarantee you write your best story.

These tips and techniques have been proven time and again. They are the secrets to what really makes a great story.  And they are the criteria that agents look for when signing a writer.

Let’s get right to it.

 

The 39 Storytelling Tips And Techniques You Need To Follow

If you are currently working on a story, open it now so you can work on it while we go through this list. Do this today and you will be ready to send off your story tomorrow!  Remember, this could make the difference between landing an agent or sitting staring at the computer dreaming of the day you write the next Harry Potter!

 

PART 1: Nailing The Fundamentals Of Your Story

 Let’s start with the very fundamentals of storytelling. These are the absolute essential building blocks that go into writing a good story.

1.Write A Strong Premise

Writing a great premise is one of the most important factors in writing a strong story.

Premise is the core idea or core argument that a work of fiction is making.

If you were writing an essay about the subject of this article, “What makes a good story”, you would include lots of facts and reasons that support your argument for what makes a good story. In fiction, you make a similar argument, but you argue using character and action.

 

Example of a premise: Crime & Punishment

Dostoevsky’s Crime And Punishment is a story about Raskalnikov.

Raskalnikov is a young man who commits a crime that (in the beginning) he thinks is justifiable. But he is then tortured by his own mind as his guilt grows.

By the time he is actually caught and sentenced, imprisonment seems like mercy, because at last he can go through his punishment and atone for his crime, which will silence the torment in his mind. The premise is “Crime leads to its own punishment by moral torment”.

Dostoevsky argues this point throughout, and this keeps the action relevant, focusing the story on one idea (the premise) so as to create a unified and cohesive whole.

So, how to write a good story: Have a premise and stick to it.

 

How to do it:

  1. Open a Word Document.
  2. Save it as “Novel Analysis”
  3. At the top write “PREMISE”.
  4. Below, in one line, write the premise of your story. You should be able to do this immediately if you have already written your story.
  5. If this is a new story, take your time to consider the story you would like to tell, and how you can translate that into one very clear premise.
  6. Make sure your premise is one sentence. It should be clear and concise.

 

 2: Use this formula when writing your premise

In his excellent book How To Write A Damn Good Novel [AMAZON], James N Frey introduces the best formula for a premise.

The formula is this::

CHARACTER [who goes through CONFLICT] = CONCLUSION

The simplest version ever: [BOY] [Meets girl] [Falls in love]

This premise takes into account the  most important aspects of storytelling:

  • CHARACTER
  • CONFLICT
  • CONCLUSION (satisfying ending)

Put those points together and you get the premise.

CHARACTER + CONFLICT  –> CONCLUSION = PREMISE.

Premise Example 2: The Godfather.

The premise of The Godfather is “Loyalty to family leads to a life of crime”.

This premise is expressed by the formula [RELUCTANT NON-CRIMINAL SON] + [PRESSURES OF A CRIMINAL FAMILY] = CRIMINAL.

The pressure that Michael Corleone is put under by his family (and by the attacks on them) turns him criminal. Simple. But by being true to this premise screenwriter Mario Puzo gave us one of the most engrossing dramas of all time.

What’s vital in The Godfather is that that the three elements of the premise (character, conflict, and conclusion) are all very strong and in complete opposition.

Michael Corleone is a World War II hero. He’s not the type of character to be a criminal. His personal morals and beliefs are strong. But so is his love of family. So when the CONFLICT comes along [the pressure of his family and the attacks on them] it changes his character, leading to CONCLUSION, the end of the story when Michael Corleone, World War II hero, is now a mafia boss.

 

How To Improve Your Premise:

  • Write the novel of your premise in one line
  • Now translate it using the formula [CHARACTER] + [CONFLICT] = [CONCLUSION]
  • Consider how you could tighten your story by using this premise formula.

 

3. Make everything relevant to the premise

In a good story, all scenes are relevant to the premise (those that aren’t are deleted).

Think about it like this:

If you were making an argument about why dogs are better than cats, you’d list all of the ways in which dogs are superior and you would cut out any ways in which cats are superior, right?

Same thing with a story.

The argument is your premise (from above). And every scene must argue the premise.

So if your premise, like The Godfather, is Family Loyalty Leads To A Life Of Crime, you need to use your scenes as your arguments.

You do this by showing how the conflict changes the character to lead to the conclusion. Hence we see how Michael Corleone’s family influence him. We see how their deaths influence him. We see how his life changes as a direct result of the conflict.

This “argument” must be strong.

Part of the art of choosing the right scenes is finding those scenes in which the conflict changes the character the most, thereby leading the character to their conclusion. Any scene that is weak, or goes against the premise, or simply is not relevant to the premise, should be cut.

If you’ve ever read / played / watched a story when you get to one scene and suddenly scratch your head wondering what the hell this scene has to do with the story, it is most probably because the scene does not relate to the premise.

How to do it:

  1. Write down your premise
  2.  If you have already written your novel: 
  3. Read through your novel
  4. For every scene, ask the question “Does this scene argue my premise?”
  5. If the scene is irrelevant to the premise, it should be removed or merged into another scene.
  6. If you are writing a new novel:
  7. Write a list of scenes you would like to include
  8. Below each scene, answer the question “How does this argue my premise?”

 

So, how to write a good story: Choose and create scenes that are very relevant to the premise and that show CONFLICT affecting CHARACTER in such a way as to bring about CONCLUSION. If any scene does not meet this criteria it must be cut.

 

 

4:  Make your story plausible, even if it’s unrealistic

For a story to work it must be plausible.

But plausible does not mean “it literally could happen”. It’s more poetic. It’s “This feels true”.

A great example of this is Avatar (Read: 10 Amazing Facts About Avatar)

Another great example is Start War.

Is it realistic that a lonely young man, Luke Skywalker, who lives on an isolated farm, would go on to become the most powerful warrior in the universe and the catalyst for the fall of the tyrannical empire? Not really. Probably wouldn’t really happen. But it feels true.

Why does Star Wars feel true? Because it has emotional, poetical, and philosophical realism.

Sure, it’s not likely a lonely farm boy would cause the victory of the Rebellion. But Luke’s personal story does feel realistic. He starts as a lonely, powerless, isolated kid who loses his family and must make it on his own, journeying out of his home and finding his strength in his adventure. That’s realistic. We all leave home, grow stronger, and find our own sort of power on our own sort of adventure. So in that sense, Star Wars is very realistic.

To make a good story you don’t need absolute plausibility; you need emotional and poetical realism.

How to do it

  • Ask this question: Does your story accurately reflect a real-life situation?
  • For instance, Veronica Roth’s Divergent depicts family and political dynamics in a way that is recognisable, even if it’s not realistic.

So, how to write a good story: Make it philosophically plausible

 

 

 

 

5: Make your story original

If a reader, viewer, or player (if you’re writing a video game story) has seen it all before they’ll skip through most of your story.

Originality leads to intrigue, and intrigue propels a reader, viewer, or player through your story.

If you want to write a page turner, you need originality.

But that doesn’t mean that you have to write abstract surrealism. You can still stick to genre. You simply have to inject a level of novelty into the story, enough to rock your audience / readers so that they’ll think “I wonder where this is heading”.

Example: The Notebook.

As yet another story in the “Man finally meets great girl only to lose her” genre, you’d be mistaken for thinking that The Notebook is run-of-the-mill yarn. But Nicholas Sparks makes it completely new by having Noah Calhourn tell his wife the story of their relationship.

What’s the hook?

He’s telling the story years later, when the couple are old. And she has Alzheimer’s, so telling the story keeps the love alive because otherwise she would forget who he is.

In that one truly original idea we get a completely new perspective on “Boy meets girl”.

 

How to do it

  1. Read your story
  2. Ask “What aspects have I copied from elsewhere?” (note: no story is ever 100% original.)
  3. Ask how you can make better use of parts that feel familiar.
  4. For instance: Could you rewrite them to make them more original?
  5. Of could you use the familiar to set-up reader’s expectations, and then surprise them with a twist?

So, how to write a good story: Be original. This is all about writing and expanding your idea.

 

 

6: Write A Highly Emotional Story

A story is worthless without emotions.

If you cannot hook a reader, viewer, or player on an emotional level your story will flop.

Thankfully, there are millions of ways in which to get people emotionally hooked. And all of those ways fall back on one core ingredient: sympathy.

Readers must sympathise with your characters.

Make people feel sympathetic for your lead character and you will have them emotionally invested.

Example Final Fantasy VII.

Final Fantasy VII opens in a world that is barren and that seems to lack any emotional warmth.

Then we come across Aeris, a young woman who in all this conflict and darkness is simply sitting outside her home tending to her flowers.

The moment we see Aeris we fall for her, because she’s so different in the game’s world. She represents peace and hope, which is sorely lacking in Final Fantasy VII’s world.

And here’s the crux.

To engage a reader’s sympathy you need to set the character apart from the rest of their world.

What makes us love Frodo? The fact that he’s a completely down-to-Earth hobbit? No. The fact that he is a completely down-to-earth hobbit in a world full of warriors and monsters? Yes.

To get a reader’s sympathy you need two things in a character:

  • you need a character that is moral and has a justifiable reason for their actions;
  • and you need them to be in high-contrast to the other characters.

Think about it like this:

  • A hero in a world of heroes is just an average Joe.
  • A hero in a world of villains is a worthy protagonist.
  • An Average Joe in a world of heroes and villains is a very interesting character.’

How to do it 

  1. Write the character’s name at the top of the page [start with the protagonist]
  2. Below the character’s name write their main objective, e,g, “Save the kingdom”
  3. Below this, write the reason why this character must do this
  4. Next write the psychological reasons why the character feels they need to complete their objective
  5. Now ask, “Can readers immediately relate to the character’s motive and reason?” For instance, it is easy to understand that Woody needs to return to Andy in Toy Story, and we can immediately sympathise with him because of it.

So, how to write a good story: Make your readers / players / viewers engage on an emotional level with a character who has morality and who is set apart from their fictional world.

 

 

 

PART 2: Working With Your Story’s Protagonist

The protagonist is the most important character in a story, along with the villain. The protagonist (main character) is the core engine of the novel. They drive the action. And their character traits are fundamental to the plot.

Here’s how to make the most of your protagonist.

7: Raise The Stakes For Your Protagonist

Having high stakes is one of the keys to a good novel.

Readers, viewers, and players love high risk.They want to feel that something is at stake in the story.

What is at risk in the story?

  • It could be a person’s life
  • it could be a person’s career
  • it could be love
  • it could be anything, but something must be on the line.

Equally important, what is on the line must have emotional value.

To prove the point, think about the amount of characters you’ve seen die in stories without giving a crap. Why didn’t you care about them? Because the characters hadn’t earned emotional value before being killed. Sure, something was lost, but something we don’t care about. (a character’s death only means something when it represents something).

Stakes only matter when they have emotional value.

If you want to make people care, you need to show why this character matters. Why does it matter when Jack dies in Titanic? Because he’s the one guy on Titanic who represents love, compassion, and hope. Kill him and you lose everything.

A character must matter before you kill them. Or, if there isn’t a death, whatever is on the line in your story must matter.

The stakes must be high.

Maybe what’s on the line (the stake) is a sense of personal freedom.

The Breakfast Club, for instance, is all about freedom from authority. We fall in love with the kids in The Breakfast Club and we truly want them to have their personal freedom because they have earned it.

How do they earn it? Through morality and positive characteristics. All of the characters in The Breakfast Club have their own positive qualities and their own struggles, all of which we can relate to and respect. Because we then care about those characters, we care about their outcome; we care about what’s at stake in the story.

How to do it

  1. Write “Stakes”
  2. Below this, write one line that explains the protagonist’s stakes (what they have to lose)
  3. Next, write why these stakes matter so much
  4. Next, check through your story to make sure that you have fully explained to readers a) what the stakes are, and b) why they matter.
  5. The more you can make the reader feel the risk, the stronger your story will be.

So, how to write a good story: Make something (a person, possession, quality, or other element) truly matter on an emotional level, and then put it in jeopardy.

 

 

8: Give Your Protagonist Psychological Stakes Too

The main stakes are what will literally happen if the character fails. In Hamlet, for example, the stakes are that Claudius will remain king.

But Hamlet is much more about psychological stakes. It’s about how failure would affect Hamlet internally, about how he will feel as though he has failed his father and his blood line.

There must be personal, psychological stakes for the protagonist (and for all major characters).

Example: Silence Of The Lambs.

Sure, we have Buffalo Bill who’s going to kill a woman by skinning her. But that’s just gruesome facts, it’s not deep emotional stakes.

Thankfully, we also have Hannibal Lecter himself, who isn’t your average psychopath. He’s deeper than that. In making a trade with the FBI Lecter asks for one thing: “a window so I can see a tree, or perhaps some water”.  He’s shown to be a deep and philosophical character, and that makes him matter.

Making The Silence Of The Lambs even more personal is Clarice Starling, who has her own emotional reason for needing to succeed—and this is truly masterfully written. Her reason, of course, is to stop those lambs from screaming. Take a look:

This scene begins with Lecter speaking:

“What triggered you then?”

“I don’t know.”

“I think you do.”

“I had worried about it all the time.”

“What set you off, Clarice? You started what time?”

“Early. Still dark.”

“Then something woke you. What woke you up? Did you dream? What was it?”

“I woke up and heard the lambs screaming. I woke up in the dark and the lambs were screaming.”

“They were slaughtering the spring lambs?”

“Yes.”

***

“Do you think if you caught Buffalo Bill yourself and if you made Catherine all right you could stop the lambs from screaming, do you think they’d be all right too, and you wouldn’t wake up in the dark and hear the lambs screaming? Clarice?”

“Yes. I don’t know. Maybe.”

Now that is personal stakes. You’d have to be dead inside not to feel for Clarice Starling.

 

How to do it:

  1. Write down what is literally on the line in the story (e.g. someone will die)
  2. Now write how these stakes relate to the lead character’s psychological stakes. How will they feel if they fail? Why will it cut the so deeply?
  3. Check through your novel to see if you have shown the reader what the psychological stakes are and why they matter.

So, how to write a good story: Have internal stakes that are highly emotional. The key to that emotion is putting the reader / watcher / gamer in the character’s shoes by sharing intimate details about their life.

 

 

Part 3: Building Fictional Worlds For Your Stories

Writing Great Fictional Worlds is essential to the art of storytelling.

When you write a believable and interesting fictional world you create an imaginary space where readers want to spend time. This can be especially important when writing a series of novels—who wouldn’t want to return to Middle Earth?!

Writing an excellent fictional world is a combinaiton of:

Imagination and creativity

Descriptive prowess

Understanding how the fictional world relates to the plot, characters and other aspects of the novel.

Here’s how to excel at fictional world building.

  • For the detailed version of these tips, see the link above.

 

 9: Write A Fictional World That Is Alive

When it comes to building fictional worlds, everything should be alive.

For example:

“The sun made the grass bright.”

Erm… no…

“Sunlight swam upon the grass”

The simple rule is: be active. Something is always happening.

Action A is causing action B is causing action C.

[The sunlight swam upon the grass][igniting sparks of green][as I jogged along the path].

 

10: Make your settings characters in their own right

 

A setting should:

  • Be active
  • influence other characters
  • Have moments of spontaneity

 

11: Settings should produce actions that make them a part of the plot 

Many first-time novelists consider the setting to be inactive, as though it were just background decoration.

Actually, setting is pivotal. The setting influences all characters in it, and often the setting directly influences the plot. Consider The Truman Show. The fictional world built by Andrew Niccol is pivotal to every action the protagonist (Truman) takes.

Here’s what to do

  1. Write a brief description of your setting
  2. Write the reason why your story is set there (if the story could be set elsewhere, you probably have the wrong setting)
  3. Write a list of possible ways the setting could directly and indirectly influence the character
  4. Work those ways (above) into your scenes.

 

Part 4: Writing Your Story’s Characters

*Read: How To Write Good Characters In Fiction

12: Make Your Character’s Strengths Relevant To The Premise

A character without strength is like a cracker without cheese: bland and tasteless.

For a character to really stand out they need to have strength and that strength needs to be relevant to the premise of the novel.

Example: Frodo

Frodo’s strength is his humility. He’s not tempted by power or riches. There is no way in which the One Ring can corrupt him, because all he wants is to live in peace in the Shire. His core strength is directly related to the premise and conflict of the story.

When working on a character’s strength it’s generally best to have just a few key psychological strengths, without overdoing it. Too much strength makes a character unbelievable. But a few core strengths makes them believable and likeable.

Good character strengths will usually relate to a positive psychological factor.

Examples of character strengths:

  • confidence (James Bond)
  • love (Romeo & Juliet)
  • humility (Frodo)
  • virtue (Othello)
  • spirituality (Gandalf)

There must be a combination of psychological strengths, and those strengths must enable the character in his mission.

So, how to write a good story: Choose a few standout character strengths and show how they empower the character on their journey.

 

 

 

13: Give Your Characters Inner-Conflict

*Pro-Tip: Method Act You Characters

Every person on God’s green Earth has inner conflict.

We doubt the things we do. We feel uncertain. We’re not sure whether we’re acting in the right way. We always have inner conflict. And good characters must too.

Let me give a recent example:

Example: Rey from The Force Awakens.

Rey is surviving on Jakku and waiting for the return of her family. Then she meets BB8 (the droid) who needs her help, and step by step she gets pulled along on this journey until she reluctantly becomes seemingly the one person who can save the universe. She even says, on getting the lightsaber, “I want nothing to do with this.”

Rey’s inner conflict makes us feel sympathetic, because it’s relatable: we’ve all had to do things we’re morally conflicted about.

Rey’s inner conflict is also directly against the plot of The Force Awakens. She has to become a Jedi, but she fears doing so.

In Rey we see the makings of great inner conflict. We have a character who must do something (become a Jedi), who has a reason for doing the opposite (staying on Jakku waiting for her family), and whose motives are thereby divided: Rey wants to help in the battle but also wants to stay on Jakku waiting for her family. This inner conflict is one of the reasons why Rey has become one of the most popular movie protagonists in recent times. Without that inner conflict you’d simply have a shallow-minded soldier who was completely fine with risking her life and becoming a Jedi. There would be no conflict.

So, how to write a good story: Give characters inner-conflict. One of the best ways to do this is to give the character something they must do and an exact opposite thing that they also must do, and make those opposing forces tear the character in two inside.

 

 

 

 14: Make Character’s Aware Of Their Own Character Development

A character that doesn’t grow as a result of the story’s actions is flat (unless being played for comedy).

Almost all great novels star a protagonist who grows from pole to pole over the course of the novel.

Example: Scrooge

Scrooge is an old and miserable miser with all the money but no happiness and no compassion. The spirits make him self aware by showing him events in his life. And through this self realisation Scrooge grows, becoming the most generous person around. It’s a complete character development fuelled by self awareness.

So, how to write a good story: Make a character grow from pole to pole, and make them aware of their own development.

 

 

15: Make your protagonist and villain do spontaneous, unexpected things:

Everyone loves spontaneity.

You’ve probably got that friend who often does random and unexpected things. And how exciting are they? Pretty damn exciting. Your characters should be the same.

Whether it’s a funny random insult that your character throws into the dialogue, or a completely spontaneous action, you should make sure your characters do enough random actions to make the reader  / viewer / player stop and think “Whoa. I was not expecting that. Wonder what this crazy character is going to do next.”

So, how to write a good story: Inject spontaneity into character actions. 

 

16 : How To Write Evil Characters

A lot of new writers create characters who are overbearingly dark. They’re like Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) in American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. They do the most outlandishly immoral things. Maybe they’re murderers who also take drugs, rape women, and do every evil thing in the world. And that’s fine, if you know how to write that sort of character.

There are two things that must happen if your despicable character is to gain reader’s sympathies:

  • Evil characters must have an understandable reason why they are so evil (maybe they’re mentally ill, or they’ve been through so much hardship that we can understand why they are the way they are).
  • And they must be aware of their evil and actively trying to do something about it.

This doesn’t apply for two dimensional supervillains, who are comically evil by nature. But if you’re writing drama or anything genuinely plausible you must stick to these two points.

So, how to write a good story: If your characters are outlandishly bad / evil / corrupt, give a reason why and also make them aware of their evil and doing something about it.

 

 

 

Part 5: How To Make Readers Care About Your Story

The key to any piece of writing is making people care. That’s true if you are writing a blog post, and it’s true if you’re writing a novel.

Here are the 6 storytelling tips and techniques for making your readers care about your story. For in-depth guides to these points, see the link above.

17: If you really want readers to engage, use forgiveness and self sacrifice

18: Fill your novel with inherent conflict

19: Minor characters should be combined into one stronger character 

20: Write A Story Full Of Conflict: 

21: Conflict Must Engage The Reader’s Sympathies. 

22.  Write A Story With Moral And Poetical And Philosophical Purpose 

 

 

Part 6: Writing Your Story’s Conflict

Human beings love conflict, don’t we? And we especially love conflict in stories.

Knowing how to write conflict in a novel is half the battle. The conflict must be inherent right at the beginning of the novel, and it must grow throughout the acts of the novel, peeking at the end.

Conflict isn’t just about good versus evil, though. There should be conflict in many aspects of the novel:

Include conflict in:

the relationship between protagonist and antagonist

the relationship between protagonist and fictional world

internal conflict (psychological)

Even conflict between the protagonist and their allies.

Basically: conflict should be everywhere.

Here are the best storytelling tips and techniques for working conflict into your novel

23: Conflict must ask questions that are hard to answer 

24: Conflict must have a satisfying conclusion 

25: Make Your Story’s Action Rise Like Yeast 

 26: Inner conflict should be logical 

 

 

Part 7: Working With Your Cast Of Characters

While writing a great protagonist and a great villain is vital, it is equally important to create an ensemble cast of characters who feed off of each other.

A good ensemble cast of character will provide contrast between their personalities, and will help to bring out the unique traits of each individual one.

Here are the top storytelling tips and techniques for writing an ensemble cast of characters.

27: Characters must have a life (a backstory)

28: Characters must have a ruling passion 

29: A Character’s Passion Must Be Strong 

30: Character conflicts come from all different angles 

31: Every character has an objective 

32: Create a central point at which all character objectives aim 

 33: Opposing forces must be equal in strength 

 34: Lock your characters in the crucible 

 

 

 

Part 8: Writing Your Story Plot

*Read Writing Your Story Plot

In The Anatomy of Story [AmazonJohn Truby says, “Plot is the most underestimated of all the major storytelling skills… It must be extremely detailed yet also hang together as a whole”.

Nailing the plot means giving readers a reason to keep turning the page. It means keeping them hooked.

Here are the top storytelling tips and techniques for writing plot.

For details on all these tips, see the link above.

35: The story must begin before the beginning

36: The plot must be a sequence of events that sequentially lead the character from point A to point B

37: The story ends with the character being the opposite of what they were in the beginning

38: Writing The Conclusion Of Your Story

 

 

39: Writing Dialogue That Pops

Dialogue must be at maximum capacity

Nobody wants to read a story in which the characters say “yeah, well, whatever… I don’t care… blah blah blah”. No. People want to read dialogue that is impassioned, purposeful, powerful, witty, and sharp. Think about anything that any Shakespeare character says. It will be ingenious. That’s why people don’t just read Shakespeare they become obsessed with Shakespeare because his dialogue is just so impossibly brilliant.

  • If you want your dialogue to hook the reader, make sure it ticks the following boxes:
  • It’s purposeful and fuelled by high motivation
  • It’s witty and intelligent
  • It’s fresh and distinct
  • It speaks of the character’s personality
  • It gets to the point fast
  • It progress the plot in every sentence.
  • Every line is in conflict.

 

 

And that’s a wrap. All the storytelling techniques and tips that go into writing a good story.

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About Paul Harrison 287 Articles
Paul M Harrison is an entertainment journalist, novelist, and blogger, and a specialist in the theory of storytelling. Paul Harrison can be contacted via his personal website or on Twitter or Facebook.

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